Before we start on the main part of the interview, tell us all a little about yourself.
I am father to three children: Lucy, Kate and Oliver and a husband to one, a fellow JRJ, – Jane. I run my own professional services business, The Big Bang Data Company, where we focus on high scale data warehouse projects – especially SQL Server Parallel Data Warehouse. I am passionate about the SQL community and am an organiser of SQLBits as well as a Board Director for PASS.
How did you start in SQL Server?
I was working at Logica, a consulting company based in the UK which at the time had about 12,000 employees, when an opportunity came up to join a project at Ford Motor Company to deliver a pan-European CRM system known as FOCALpt. The underlying tech back then was SQL 6.5, C++, VB6 and ASP. We took it from being a distributed system to a centrally hosted platform running on a stretched Geo Cluster running SQL 2000.
This interview is going to be mainly around your experiences of PASS, I am (and I’m sure you are) hoping that this may raise awareness of what PASS does for the SQL Server community for those people who may not have heard about it before. Could you just outline what PASS is and its mission statement?
PASS is a community organisation pure and simple. It is dedicated to the development of the SQL Server Community. The mantra is “Connect. Learn. Share.”. PASS organises events and helps community leaders host their own events and user group meetings. We provide opportunities for data professionals to get access to first class training, mentoring and education through a network of like-minded people from all over the world. At over 127,000 members PASS is one of the world’s largest community organisations and one I am proud to be part of.
I would just like to highlight a few of the key events that PASS is responsible for:
The PASS Summit is the largest SQL Server event anywhere in the world and actually represents the world’s largest fund raiser for the SQL Server community. The proceeds from the Summit are what PASS uses to pay for the supporting infrastructure of its other community activity. This year sees the summit move to the east coast as Charlotte plays host to the biggest SQL show on earth…
PASS SQL Saturday is one of the truly great phenomenon’s to have happened to the community in recent memory. From nothing SQL Saturday has grown to become the one of the most successful grassroots events for any community let alone SQL Server. In the UK we already have two planned for this year; #194 in Exeter and #202 in Edinburgh. However, it all starts with a user group (PASS calls them Chapters) and PASS is very active there too. Currently there over 250 PASS affiliated chapters all over the world.
Finally, the PASS BA Conference is a brand venture for the organisation and for the community. The inaugural event will be held on the 10-12 April in Chicago. You can register for the conference by clicking here. If you’d like to know more about Business and Data analytics then you can also learn more about the subject in our upcoming 24Hours of PASS (24HOP) event that focuses on this theme. You can register for the 24HOP event by clicking here.
You are of course on the board of directors at PASS, but how did you first hear about the organisation?
I first heard about PASS a long time ago but became a member when the membership fee was dropped. That’s quite a while ago now but it was a pivotal decision for the organisation and part of the reason why we now have over 120,000 members.
I’ve mentioned that you are on the board; could you explain the role that you currently hold within PASS?
When you are elected as a director of PASS you are given one or more portfolios to run and manage. These range from Summit Program Content through to community activity such as Chapters, Virtual Chapters or SQL Saturday or even more operational activities like IT. I am responsible for Global Growth. This is a community initiative that is responsible for the international growth and development of the SQL Server Community.
The process of becoming a board member appears to be quite complicated; can you explain how it works for someone who may be interested in becoming elected?
You are right – it can be a daunting but make no mistake it is also immensely rewarding. It all starts with the individual. You have to decide that you want to run and are prepared to give up the time to attend meetings and drive a portfolio. That is actually the hard part. Once you’ve made that decision then the next part basically involves convincing others that you are right the person for the job. There is an application form to fill out (you will need some references) and also an interview with the Nominations Committee or Nom Com. This is the first part of the vetting – getting your name on the ballot. This is by no means a formality but equally it’s designed to make sure that the candidates really know what they are signing up for and that they have the passion and commitment to see their term through. The last step in convincing others is the member election. You will get asked questions and you need to campaign for people’s votes.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to run for a spot on the board?
Be creative, be open and start early! There is quite a bit to do and so it is best if you plan out your campaign.
I’ve been a member for many years now, but must admit that I’ve not really paid much if any attention to the movement until around four years ago when I started becoming a lot more involved in local user groups. In PASS is there a feeling that you are fully engaging with your members or is there a large untapped resource out there just waiting to be activated?
I think PASS means a great deal to a large number of people. However, as you travel round the world the general sentiment varies quite broadly. I would still say that there are large untapped areas out there because there are so many places that have little or no community activity for SQL Server. You can also see the explosive growth in other areas. That’s very exciting. Last year we also saw some great activity in the virtual chapters as well. This is exciting as you are seeing people from around the world who share a common language making a concerted effort to collaborate. For PASS though there is never time to rest on one’s laurels. We are always striving to grow; reach new audiences and add more value to our members.
PASS is seemed by many to be a predominantly North American organisation. It’s based out of there, the summit is there and of course most of the members reside there. I know that you have been working on trying to change this perception and it’s great that EMEA now has its own PASS evangelist in Niko Neugebauer. Do you think this perception is starting to change and is there anything that community members can do to help accelerate this?
Operationally PASS is run from PASS HQ who are based in Canada and a number of the members are from the USA. However, it isn’t quite as many as you might think and the numbers are shifting all the time. Besides I prefer to look at things from a different perspective. I like to look at activity. When I started on the board in January 2012 there were as many SQL events happening outside the US as there were inside. In Europe last year for example we had a number of SQL events including SQL Saturdays in Ireland, Cambridge & Munich to name some examples. On top of that SQLRally Nordic was a great success. All of this is underpinned by a very vibrant SQL Server user group community.
The international perspective does falter a little at the Board level where the vast majority of directors are from the US. However, we are making steps to change this and actually have adjustments in the by-laws out there for the community to digest. These bylaw changes are important as they allow PASS to change the board structure to allow for Regional Seats. The aim is to have a seat filled specifically by a person from EMEA in the next election cycle in addition to a seat for a US & Canada seat.
You can read all about our motivations for making the changes on the Global Growth pages on the PASS website. Check out the vision document by clicking here.
Having started my own user group I’m now starting to appreciate the effort that goes into running an event. I went to the PASS summit for the first time in 2012 and the sheer size of it was quite overwhelming. How long does it take to pull together an event of that magnitude?
PASS is very fortunate to have some excellent people in the HQ team supporting them. They are a very experienced professional team who know how to put on a fantastic event. One of the nice upsides about being on the board is having the opportunity to get to know the HQ team. So if it’s Anika on the events side or Lana in marketing through to Wesley and Benny in IT – these guys are part of the team that make the magic happen. You can meet them too at the PASS booth. Next time feel free to stop by and say hi. They are a great bunch.
The content for the show is compiled by the Programs Committee and is owned by the Programs Portfolio which is managed by Adam Jorgensen and executed on by his program management team. Both Amy Lewis and Marcella McKeown did a fantastic job last year, as did all the volunteers working on programs, and I am very much looking forward to Charlotte this year where I am sure they will excel once again.
I’ve mentioned that I have a user group and to expand on that last year I affiliated it with PASS which provides certain opportunities and benefits to my members. Could you outline why you think user group leaders should consider becoming a PASS affiliated chapter?
One of the main benefits that I see is the chapter leader mailing list. Having the opportunity to ask questions of other chapter leaders – to get insight or inspiration is a great benefit that speaks to the heart of the PASS values of “Connect. Learn. Share”.
There is also some great learning resources available for you to use including a set of the Summit DVDs. In a pinch these make fantastic presentation alternatives. So if you were let down by a speaker at the last minute you don’t have to cancel your meeting.
PASS has also made a significant investment into its chapter tools. We are always trying to improve the experience for chapter leaders and make it easier for them to get the word out there about their group and its events. However, rather than regurgitate what is already out there I suggest you take a look at Allen Kinsel’s excellent updates to the community on his activity. This post in particular covers some of the more recent updates to the chapter. Allen has handed over the portfolio chapter to Wendy Pastrick and I wish her the very best in her new role as a Director of PASS.
Remember it doesn’t cost you anything to affiliate your user group to PASS.
Can you tell us anything about the new PASS Business Analytics Conference? How did that come about?
As I mentioned earlier the PASS Business Analytics Conference is a brand new venture for PASS. The inaugural event will be held on April 10-12 in Chicago. It’s shaping up to be a fantastic event. Award winning economist and best-selling author Dr Steven Levitt will be providing the key note to share his knowledge on data analytics. On top of that we have pre-cons from some top industry renowned speakers and a whole host of sessions on topics from Data Analytics and Visualisation through to Big Data Innovations and Integration.
This event is a strategic investment for PASS. The world is changing at a phenomenal rate and the latest industry trends are re-defining the roles of many of our members and the wider data professional community. There is also the acknowledgement that there isn’t the same kind of community surrounding the data and business analyst community as there is for SQL Server which I would say is at the forefront of community activity internationally. PASS therefore has the opportunity to support existing members by creating an event that helps them transition into their new roles whilst also attracting new members to our existing community.
SQL Saturdays seem to be popping up all over the place in EMEA which is nice to see, do you think there will ever be an EMEA PASS summit and looking further afield with the way the economy appears to be heading one in APJ?
I think there is always one event that is the showcase event and to me that is the Summit. Actually we all need that. However, I do think that one day we might look at recent large events and consider them to be small by comparison. I’d love to see a Summit attended by 20,000 people.
What does that mean for the rest of the world you might ask? Well I think that certain regions do not suit an international event model and EMEA is a good case in point for that. I would like to see many more SQL Rally events in EMEA that support all the various nations. Together they could easily reach the kinds of numbers for attendees that the Summit does today. However, I think each one has to focus on their local market.
Asia Pacific is another kettle of fish. In some parts PASS and the SQL Community is incredibly strong. Think about Australia and New Zealand. There are some great people out there with fantastic knowledge including my good friend and fellow board member Mr Rob Farley. However, there are also places like China. China is a very different cultural market and one which PASS will need to invest in strategically in order to be successful. India is different again and there are some great community groups out there already such as www.sqlservergeeks.com who are already doing great things and holding big events. In these places PASS needs to understand how it can help support existing community groups and ensure that they thrive.
PASS doesn’t just deal with physical events; there are also a number of virtual groups that people can attend. Could you tell people a little about them and how they can get involved please?
PASS runs a number of virtual or online events. These range from 24 Hours of PASS (24HOP) to Virtual Chapters (VC) which run online and tend to be theme or language based content. Our next 24HOP is coming up on the 30th January and the theme is business analytics. You can register for the event by clicking here. 24HOP events are free to attend so literally all you need to do is sign up, login at the time of the session(s) you are interested in and enjoy the content. Similarly Virtual Chapters are also free to attend. All you need to do is head over to the Virtual Chapter Portal page, log in (you will need to register) and join the Virtual Chapters you are interested in learning from and about. There is some great content available. Topics range from Database Administration to Big Data and the language VCs include Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese and French.
The person responsible for Virtual Chapters and 24HOP is Denise McInerney. 2013 has seen 24HOP and Virtual Chapters come under one roof which I think is a great move forward.
A lot of people probably don’t know that you are also on the committee for SQLBits, Europe’s largest SQL Server conference. How do you find time to do everything and do you find that your roles sometimes conflict?
It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun. Many of the people I am happy to say have become good friends. Some, like Simon Sabin, I knew before I started doing Bits or PASS but actually I met him for the first time at a SQL Server event (2005 launch). The best bit about working in the community is the people. Yes you learn new skills and see different places but the people are what make it special. It’s not just the community leader folk either. Whilst working with PASS I’ve also got meet and know some great people at PASS HQ too.
What has been your most memorable moment at PASS so far?
I think when my 90 minute board update over-ran by about 4 hours. I am not desperately concise at the best of times but that was pretty legendary – even by my standards! Seriously though I think getting elected at the tail end of last year was pretty special. Having so many people come out and vote for you plus all the messages of support – it was fantastic and very memorable.
Finally, what are your ambitions for 2013?
Professionally I am very keen to grow my business as one of the primary partners for SQL Server PDW. I’ve been working with this product and the engineering team for many years now and am very, very excited about the new release. The world of Big Data is upon us and I hope to be part of it.
Community wise I want to make sure that the first regional elections take place and they are successful. It’s really important that this next set of elections are well supported. I also have to decide whether or not to run for the Executive roles at PASS (elections are in May I believe). However, that would be telling!
Finally personally I can say that I’ve achieved one ambition already as I saw my eldest daughter Lucy reach 18. To watch your children growing up into (almost) mature adults is one of life’s greatest privileges.
Thanks for your time James all the best for the next SQLBits in Nottingham!
You can find out more about PASS at the website http://www.sqlpass.org
You can find out more about SQLBits at the website http://www.SQLBits.com
To read more about James you can view his LinkedIn profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/jrowlandjones
Following this post from a syndicated source and want to read other interviews in the series? The anchor post for this series can be found here.